I got a B.S. in chemical engineering at Carnegie Mellon in 1991, and went to graduate school at the University of California at Berkeley for a year before dropping out to pursue my passion in education. After getting a M.A.T. in math education from Boston University, I started teaching middle school math and science on a two-person team in Attleboro in 1995.
Attleboro was an incredibly creative time for me. The superintendent had banned math textbooks, so I was making up my own curriculum on the fly. I remember designing a unit on fluid pressure and the particle theory of matter. In this unit, students learned by conducting a series of hands-on investigations. One of the initial investigations involved using a digital camera to record video of collisions. By studying the video frame-by-frame (we were able to capture grainy video at 320 x 240 and 5 fps), students applied vector concepts to discover the conservation of momentum. I was appointed to the District Math Curriculum committee and hired to run a physics workshop for teachers over the summer.
In 1998, I started teaching 7th-grade math and science in Brookline. Technically, Brookline was using MathScape for its middle school math program, but I didn't particularly care for it. I managed to convince another new teacher, Charles, to join me in creating our own math curriculum. The parents in Brookline were very demanding, but they were pleased with the results, so we were supported by the principal. Charles and I also shared a classroom, so we got used to observing and critiquing each other's lessons. We refined the curriculum over two years.
While we were getting good results, we were also doing our work in isolation. Imagine that this is a graph of student performance over time. Our students would make higher than normal performance gains using our curriculum, but those performance gains would largely be erased once they were back to using a normal curriculum.
This was still better than a typical intervention. In a typical intervention, there is an initial bump in performance that quickly levels out, and then disappears once the intervention is over. At least with our curriculum, students would make performance gains the whole time they were using it.
On the science side, I was learning to take my curriculum vertical. The math curriculum that Charles and I developed still introduced concepts in isolation; in science, the concepts built on top of each other. I had done this in Attleboro with the fluid pressure unit, but that was a two-month long series of investigations. In Brookline, I was connecting all of the earth and life science concepts in the 7th-grade curriculum in a yearlong series of investigation, using the Big Bang and chemistry as the starting point.
Brookline was partnering with the Virtual High School at the time, and my principal asked me to design an online science course for them. The science course I designed was based around the challenge of programming a spaceship to navigate through a two-dimensional course (up-down, forward-back). The spaceship was essentially a tank of high-pressure gas. You piloted the spaceship by opening and closing nozzles. When a nozzle was open, gas would flow through the nozzle, providing thrust. Over time, the pressure in the tank would drop and the mass of the spaceship would decrease. Students would use experiments to learn the science concepts, and they would use spreadsheets to model the spaceship. All of their calculations would be based on discrete time steps, so calculus was not required and all relationships would be linear. (Students would be able to adjust the size of the time steps, so they would be working with limits.)
The other significant development that occurred while I was at Brookline was the formation of my first learning community. In my first year at Brookline, the students in my homeroom also had me for math, science, and study hall. I didn't know it at the time, but these students had two teachers walk out on them in 4th- and 5th-grade. So, they tested me. They tested me to see if there was anything that they could do to push me away. Somehow I hung in there, and managed to break through with them in December.
For me, a learning community is a community whose primary focus is learning. That means that learning is more important than worrying about making mistakes or looking bad. It means taking ownership of your own learning, approaching new experiences with a sense of inquiry, and pulling together to help other members in the community to learn. These students regularly entered the flow state and tested their own understanding. They wanted to make sense of what they were learning and believed that they could.
In 2001, Charles told me that his wife's school, the Jewish Community Day School (JCDS) was looking for a middle school math teacher. The middle school had less than forty students in it at the time, so I would be the only math teacher in the middle school. Charles didn't think I'd be interested, but I jumped at the chance to see what our math curriculum could do when scaled across three grade levels.
JCDS was very progressive and student-centered, so they were using Investigations in the elementary school and Connected Mathematics (CMP) in the middle school. But they were also based in Newton so expectations were very high. The expectation was that all students would take Algebra I in 8th-grade and some students would take Algebra I in 7th-grade, but students had much less time for math because they had to take so many additional subjects, such as Hebrew and religious studies. This meant that using CMP in the middle school was going to be unworkable. Most public schools have a hard time getting through the CMP curriculum even with extra instructional time and without having to complete Algebra I by 8th-grade.
I took the math curriculum that Charles and I had developed in Brookline and adapted it for JCDS, using the vertical learning principles I had applied to the science curriculum in Brookline. Being able to build concepts across three grade levels enabled me to design my first sense-making math curriculum. By going vertical and investing in student understanding early on, I helped students climb faster and farther in the long run.
After working with the same group of students for three years, I saw impressive performance gains for the entire three years. When those students left JCDS for high school, their rate of performance growth returned to normal levels, but they didn't lose the gains they had made at JCDS. This indicates that these students were able to build on the understanding they had developed at JCDS, even in environments that didn't natively support sense-making.
After three years of making sense of things in math, these students expected to make sense of things in all subjects, but they were still dependent to some degree on their teachers helping them. Ideally, students should be able to develop the sense-making skills they need to make sense of things completely on their own.
By this point, I had concluded that a sense-making curriculum works. The next step was to see if I could bring it to scale. I left JCDS in 2004 to become middle school math curriculum leader for the Groton-Dunstable Regional School District (GDRSD). The administration at GDRSD wanted the middle school math teachers to adopt a standards-based math curriculum and I wanted to see if I could lead the change process.
The math department was bitterly divided and none of the previous curriculum leaders had been able to achieve any form of consensus. My job was to guide a committee of teachers in selecting a new math program for the middle school by the end of the year. I started capacity-building right away. I wanted everyone to have a deeper understanding of how students learn and how standards-based math programs work (the math wars had kicked up a lot of FUD). We established the criteria we would use to evaluate math programs and started collecting data. As part of the process, I asked teachers to try some different approaches. One of the 7th-grade math teachers who was firmly in the "traditional" camp ended up raving about a functions lesson I had designed for him. He observed students actively taking ownership and reasoning through problems instead of passively waiting for him to tell them what to do. I also secured a commitment from the administration that the committee would select the new math program and not simply make a recommendation to the administration.
In the spring, two clear favorites had bubbled to the surface: CMP 2 and Math Thematics. Both programs were standards-based math programs, and I thought both were good choices. The traditionalists preferred Math Thematics because the program was structured more like a traditional textbook. The progressives preferred CMP 2 because it focused more on open-ended problem solving. The administration wanted CMP 2, but the committee ended up deadlocking 4-4. With both sides digging in, the administration felt justified in breaking the tie and choosing CMP 2 itself.
I begged the administration to give the committee one last chance; I felt that we were on the verge of consensus. So, we gathered for one last time at the end of June and I ran through the possible outcomes. We were about to make a decision that the teachers were going to have to live with for the next ten years. We could make the comfortable choice and hope that Math Thematics would encourage students to become independent problem solvers, or we could go all-in and take a risk on CMP 2. The traditionalists had already acknowledged that the primary benefit of Math Thematics is that it made the transition to a standards-based math program smoother for teachers (which is important). The 7th-grade teacher who had tested the functions lesson stood up and decided to change his vote. His 7th-grade colleague stood up and agreed. If CMP 2 gave them a slightly better chance of encouraging students to become independent problem solvers, than it was worth the risk and greater discomfort for teachers. The committee voted 7-0-1 for CMP 2.
We were doing a staggered roll out and building in lots of professional development, so there was still lots of work to be done. I was drawing up budgets and three-year implementation plans, presenting in front of the school committee, working with vendors and consultants, and coordinating everything. It was fun and exciting, but the most exciting thing for me was the potential of creating a learning community among the teachers. The breakthrough we had in June felt similar to the breakthrough I had had with my students in Brookline.
Unfortunately, the administration didn't share my enthusiasm and optimism. My boss, the Director of Curriculum, hadn't experienced the same things that the committee had experienced because she hadn't been there day-to-day, so she assumed that the teachers' buy-in was temporary. She didn't realize that their buy-in was actually at the ownership level; she probably couldn't even conceive of that as a possibility. So, instead of building on their commitment and establishing a learning community where we would all work together toward a common goal, she seized on their commitment to leverage her own agenda.
In my mind, we were removing one script (the traditional textbook) and exchanging it for a slightly better script (CMP 2). But how can you believe that teaching from a script is good for teachers when solving problems from a script is bad for students? Many people are able to live with that level of cognitive dissonance, but I can't. I felt like I had betrayed the teachers by unwittingly participating in a bait-and-switch on them.
In 2007, I became middle school math and science curriculum specialist in Holliston. I won't go into a ton of detail since I wrote about my experiences in Holliston here, here, and here. My goal was to see if I could implement a sense-making curriculum designed by the teachers themselves and to create the learning community I failed to create in GDRSD.
In my first year in Holliston, I became fast friends with Jessica, the principal of the middle school. We worked closely together and she valued my insights. It was a highly collaborative relationship driven by inquiry. When Jessica became assistant superintendent for the Freetown-Lakeville Regional School District (Freelake), she immediately hired me as her K-8 Math Program Coordinator. I was highly impressed by the team that John, the superintendent, was putting together and I relished the opportunity to work with Jessica again, but this time, at a district level.
Unfortunately, Jessica had other plans. She admitted to me that she only listened to me in Holliston because she was about to flame out there and needed me to bail her out with the staff. Now that she was at Freelake and had carte blanche from the superintendent, she wanted to do things her way. While I can respect that on some level, she should have told me that before luring me away from Holliston. I would have never have gone to work with her under those conditions.
The whole year in Freelake was a complete disaster. Jessica, the superintendent, and the consultant they brought in from UMass Lowell spoke passionately about forming a learning community. I think that they, to this day, genuinely believe that they are true believers of learning communities. But the administrative team at Freelake was no learning community. John and Jessica had their agenda and they used the pretense of a learning community to ram it down our throats. Their goal was to win and then leverage commitments from us and then the teachers. When I objected, the learning community ran roughshod over me. I left when John and Jessica used me to get a group of young teachers to go out on a limb, and then undercut the initiative behind their backs. It was GDRSD all over again, and all though I was wiser and more experienced, I couldn't do anything to stop it. That's when I decided to abandon schools for a while and start up Vertical Learning Labs.
So, where am I now? That is the question that opened this post and it is where I'm going to end. I haven't reached a new normal, yet. I don't even think it is visible from my current vantage point. But I've been to the foothills of the new normal and I'm as confident as ever that it's there. And if it isn't there, I already know that the foothills I'm on are much taller than the tiny cluster of hills that everyone else is on. So this is a good place to be.
I have developed a sense-making curriculum for middle school math and components of a sense-making curriculum for science. The sense-making curriculum for math works for kids. It's been tested and refined. It's also been designed to fit within the constraints of the current system: 50 minute classes/5 days a week, Common Core standards, high school math courses, etc. Even when I designed a sense-making curriculum for JCDS, my priority was preparing students for a seamless transition to the elite high schools in the area. As we move together toward a new normal, those constraints will fall away and I'm excited to see what people can create from scratch.
Other teachers can and will use the curriculum that I've written, and get similar results. A small number of teachers will fly with it right away. The majority will need coaching from someone like me.
I'm working toward articulating a process that other teachers can use to create their own sense-making curriculum. That is a work in progress and I've got a long way to go.
I can consistently create learning communities. I stumbled onto my first one in Brookline, but I've been consciously creating them ever since. It's fairly easy to do in the classroom when I have students in front of me 50 minutes a day/5 days a week. It is harder to do with teachers, whom I may have in front of me only 50 minutes a day/one day every two weeks (10% of the contact time I have with students). I haven't actually managed it with a group of teachers yet, but I have gotten close in GDRSD and Holliston. Doing it with administrators is much tougher because I get much less contact time with them, and when we do have contact, it is usually around their agenda instead of mine.
I'm not yet at a point where I've started to articulate how I create learning communities. In the classroom, I think that a sense-making curriculum is a great start, but other components are definitely necessary.
Finally, I know that I can't convince anyone through words. I've always suspected that, but banging your head against that particular wall for over 15 years brings another level of clarity. The flip side to that is that anyone who has worked closely with me for any period of time walks away with a much deeper understanding and appreciation of what I do. It is rare for me to not win someone over when they experience firsthand what I can do and what I'm about. The question, as always, is: How do I bring that to scale?